- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2003

The headlines are simply numbing in their predictability: “Expos relocation off until 2005.” “Norfolk enters bid for Expos.” “Major League Baseball considering Puerto Rico, Mexico for 2004.”

Area baseball boosters have seen these kinds of obfuscation, bait-and-switch, and simple delay tactics for most of the 32 years since the second Senators team left town. And each time, civic leaders mustered the strength and energy to get back up off the mat and keep fighting for another franchise.

This time, however, the local baseball chase is arguably at its weakest and most unimpassioned level of any time in the last decade.

Once baseball executives missed their target date of the All-Star Game to establish some kind of relocation plan for the MLB-owned Montreal Expos, the local bids quickly began to deflate. A newer target of Labor Day, predictably missed by baseball, levied another stiff blow.

And now, with MLB executives close to a deal to repeat the 2003 Expos split schedule of San Juan and Montreal, as well as inviting permanent bids for the club well beyond the original trio of the District, Northern Virginia and Portland, Ore., the whole relocation saga is essentially starting over.

Virtually all the things that have happened in the last two years — including the series of presentations and meetings with MLB’s relocation committee, the civic debate over a publicly financed stadium, the ballpark site evaluations, and the public meetings and events designed to rally citizen support — will need to happen again.

“It’s hard to be enthused about this when we’re in such a dormant position,” said Fred Malek, chairman of the Washington Baseball Club. “There’s still definitely desire to do this. But there’s just been no activity.”

Even baseball itself is trying to make sense of the ridiculous Expos madness it has created. One ranking executive recently likened the whole relocation process to the whack-a-mole game seen at amusement parks.

“Cities keep popping up on us,” the executive said.

Furthering the lack of direction in the District is the ongoing leadership turnover within the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission. That process to bring in chairman nominee Mark Touhey and a still-unnamed executive director to replace Bobby Goldwater might not be complete until late winter.

Frustration and confusion are certainly not new feelings to greater Washington’s long quest for baseball. Just last spring, District officials, while still decidedly in favor of baseball, openly chafed at MLB executives using a demand for public stadium dollars as a naked ploy to keep the eventual selling price of the Expos as high as possible.

Similarly, Virginia baseball boosters waged a propaganda war with the Arlington County Board and anti-stadium activists once Pentagon City emerged as the favored ballpark spot of the pro-baseball lobby and landowners asserted their rights in response.

But those disputes were actually about something. There were clear battle lines, a defined conflict, and a timeline of activity, led by MLB, that suggested some sort of endgame would soon arrive.

Since then, the process has descended into a great void. Nothing truly meaningful has happened with the Expos relocation process since July, even as the team continues to lose money and struggles to keep the core of its roster together. The return of a “temporary solution,” as MLB called the San Juan games this year, is just that.

The addition of permanent bids from the likes of Norfolk, Monterrey, Mexico, Las Vegas and elsewhere adds a new dimension to the Expos chase. MLB president Bob DuPuy insisted last week that the relocation committee always has been open to additional bids. But for nearly a year, the process focused squarely on greater Washington and Portland. Many local leaders are baffled by the new entries, particularly given that each is far smaller and less wealthy than greater Washington, and in most cases Portland, too.

The situation will improve, and local community enthusiasm will return once MLB redefines its relocation process and actually sticks to it. Washington loves a fight and loves a winner, and this is a fight Washington can still win, even with its recently horrid record on the big-time sports stage.

When baseball does its part is still anybody’s guess. Just last week, baseball insiders said the deal to return the Expos to San Juan for part of 2004 was about 95 percent done, with just legal wording and documentation remaining. But in the same breath, they insisted the Monterrey bid for next season was still very much alive.

That’s a story Washington knows all too well.

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